Despite what you might think from its shell, Mercenary Kings is imbued with an impressive number of inspirations from some rather varied sources. Its simple but delightful pixel art and recognizable format begs you to pigeonhole it as just another side-scrolling Contra wannabe, but it tries to do a lot more than that. Unfortunately, not all of what it does necessarily goes down as an achievement.
To clear things up, though, it is mostly what it looks like, which is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up that has an aesthetic throwback to similar, 90s-era run ‘n gun games like Metal Slug. It’s a bit light on the story, but the gist is that you are part of a hero squad called The Kings touching down on the secret island headquarters of CLAW (the bad guys, if you couldn’t tell). You go from left to right, shoot the people shooting you, and whammy.
Except you don’t just go left to right. You can go right to left and even in and out of tunnels that lead you to other areas to go any which way you desire. One of the cool things about Mercenary Kings is that it is exceedingly non-linear. Your objective may lie in one particular direction, but the number of ways you can get there is numerous.
It makes the rather slim number of levels easier to swallow because you will rarely go through them the same way twice. Either by necessity or by choice, the varied paths you can—and will—take add enough freshness each time to make it worthwhile. It allows you to make the conscious decision to either beeline it to the end to make it before the timer runs out (every mission is timed) or explore and find gun parts, bonus objectives, and other sundry goodies.
Unfortunately, that also plays into one of the game’s nagging points. The bosses of the game have a tendency to cut and run. This is a direct play into the stylings of Monster Hunter where the giant beasts you would fight would run and you would have to track them. It’s easier here since it’s just two dimensions and the map marks the bosses’ possible locations, but my god it is super duper annoying. It was actually almost enough to make me quit a few times.
Strangely enough, though, it also increased the joy of bringing down the big baddies in the end. It wasn’t enough to make it worth the running around in circles over and over and over again, but it was a unique side of victory you rarely get in video games. If anything, it made me understand why people like Monster Hunter so much.
But along the way, you will have plenty of time to get familiar with your gun, and I do mean your gun. You’ll collect parts as you play the game and cobble together your own weapon. It has a huge impact on the way you play the game. A machine gun-style body with a shotgun barrel? What about the opposite? You could have fast, powerful shots that are wildly inaccurate or slow, pattering rifle or anything other number of things. Your unique gun recipe will define your moment-to-moment combat scenarios, and it’s nice to see a game allow tangible consequences from user choices.
The combat itself is also quite good. As more enemy types get added to the mix (and there are a lot), those moments of laying on the trigger or mindless jumping over missiles will slowly fade out and let a frenzy take over. Active reload, strangely nimble robots, little buzzing drones. They will eventually come to consume your whole attention. It’s impressive, though those drones get super annoying. Enemies that slowly drift in and out of your eight shooting directions always become a hateful bore in these types of games, and this is no exception.
The bosses themselves present a different challenge. They hit, like, super hard. They hit hard enough to where you need to plan your health kit usage around them from the start of the level. But their attacks begin incredibly predictable once you uncover their highly repeatable patterns. Not exactly my cup of tea, but it is a refreshing change from the courtesy Mario-style three-hit bosses.
If you add another playing into the mix via co-op, you’ll see something else relatively unique to the world of video games. Because of the heavily parallelizable structure of the game (find where the boss went, complete side objectives, etc.), you and your buddies can strike out in any way you see fit. Being able to break apart at any time and know that everyone is still able to contribute in a meaningful way was a great way to play.
Moving, however, isn’t topnotch. Shooting itself is fine, but there’s a strange heft to jumping that feels either like unwitting lag or a decision to make it feel like these mercs actually require hunkering down before launching into the air. Either way, it makes the platforming (and there’s a good amount, though nothing terribly demanding) and some battles feel sluggish.
Which is too bad because Mercenary Kings was well on its way to being a much better game than it is, and feeling like you have total control over your character goes a long way. It does a lot right and a lot to set itself apart from being just another side-scrolling shoot ’em up, but not enough of those two overlap to make Mercenary Kings much more than just an okay game.
+ Pixel art and animations are all around fantastic
+ Crafting and experimenting with gun crafting to find your right weapon is great
+ The moment-to-moment combat gets pretty interesting
– Bosses running away from you is incredibly tedious
– Moving in the world doesn’t feel so hot
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Mercenary Kings
Release: March 25, 2014
Genre: Side-scrolling shoot ’em up
Developer: Tribute Games
Available Platforms: PC, OSX, PlayStation 4
Players: Single-player offline, two to four online